Corralling Conflict: The Politics of Australian Federal Heritage Legislation Since the 1970s

Paul Ashton, Jennifer Cornwall

Abstract

In August 1968, conservative National Party leader Joh Bjelke-Petersen became Premier of the state of Queensland. He referred to conservationists as these 'subversives, these friends of the dirt'. A generation later, few if any Australian politicians would have publicly attacked the environment and its supporters for fear of electoral damage. After years of major environmental battles which on occasion determined the fate of some governments, the environment had crashed through into mainstream politics. Natural and cultural heritage was firmly on local, state and federal political agendas. Heritage in Australia was also, by the 1990s, a substantial, multifaceted industry. Cultural and eco tourism generated a significant proportion of the country's gross domestic product. Along side and partially in response to industry, a heritage bureaucracy had developed. The corporatisation of heritage saw the rise in the 1980s and 1990s of a new generation of heritage professionals who attempted with varying degrees of success to place heritage assessment on a quasi-scientific footing. Perhaps their greatest achievement, in terms of cultural heritage, was gaining recognition in the 1990s for the vital importance of intangible heritage. Intangible heritage, or social value, inscribes objects and sites that cannot speak for themselves with cultural and social meanings. Since the 1980s, some more radical practitioners had been working to counteract the dominance of tangible remains of the past in determining cultural significance. This victory over empiricism, however, was in some respects to prove pyrrhic. Heritage conservation, as with some other heritage practices, was by the turn of the twenty-first century institutionally confined in its ability to represent conflict. This article charts the incorporation and corralling of heritage work at the federal level in Australia through a case study of the rise and fall of the Australian Heritage Commission.

Keywords

Public History; Heritage Conservation; Australian History; History of the Australian Heritage Commission

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